The Sentinel-Record

Biden’s silence on balloon spoke volumes

- Marc A. Thiessen

WASHINGTON — If a Chinese military spy craft had tried to violate U.S. airspace days before Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address, I suspect that the Gipper would have not only ordered our military to shoot it down before it entered our territory — but also invited the pilot who took it out to be his guest in the House chamber.

But Joe Biden is no Ronald Reagan. Instead of using his speech this week to report to the American people on the recent incursion of a Chinese spy balloon and lay out a strategy to confront the danger posed by the Chinese Communist Party, Biden made only an elliptical reference: “If China threatens our sovereignt­y, we will act to protect our country.” In all, he delivered no more than 10 sentences on China. He spent more time touting his Junk Fee Prevention Act — and promising to take on outrageous “resort fees” — than discussing the threat from Beijing.

The mind boggles. Biden wants to brush the incident under the rug because it was yet another national security failure on his watch — one that even Democrats have called him out on. Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director in the ObamaBiden administra­tion, said Biden “should have acted earlier” to stop the Chinese airship before it reached U.S. territory. Rep. Raja Krishnamoo­rthi (D-Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the new House select committee on China, said in a joint statement with the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.): “The Chinese Communist Party should not have on-demand access to American airspace.” And Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Defense Appropriat­ions subcommitt­ee, said, “I will be pulling people before my committee to get real answers on how this happened.”

Biden provided no answers Tuesday night. Instead, his administra­tion has peddled excuse after excuse to play down the significan­ce of the incursion. First, it questioned the value of the intelligen­ce the spy ship could glean. Well, if spy balloons have no intelligen­ce value, why has Beijing developed a whole fleet of them? Perhaps it’s because, unlike satellites, which travel at 17,000 miles per hour, balloons can loiter over a target at lower altitude, gathering better-quality pictures, and can also pick up radio, cellular and other transmissi­ons that cannot be detected from space. On Thursday, the administra­tion admitted that China is running a massive aerial espionage program that has targeted more than 40 countries on five continents — and that the one recently over our territory was capable of monitoring communicat­ions.

This incursion could have been a dry run to test U.S. defenses — which are clearly lacking. What if the next Chinese blimp carries not spyware but weapons of mass destructio­n or an electromag­netic pulse (EMP) capable of short-circuiting our power grid and shutting down critical infrastruc­ture? China has reportedly been testing such weapons. Retired Air Force Maj. David Stuckenber­g, an expert on the EMP threat, wrote in a 2015 paper that a high-altitude balloon would be an ideal platform for delivering such a weapon.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, told Fox News that “China is using these balloons, relatively low technology, to probe and to find where U.S. surveillan­ce systems are and where the U.S. is vulnerable. And they know if they’re not detected because there’s no aircraft up, there’s no jamming of their system, and they say, ‘OK, this a path we can follow with our advanced technology’ — not with a balloon to deliver a weapon, but with a supersonic machine that can deliver a weapon.”

Simply put, this was no benign incident. Worse, there had been previous incidents, including three during the Trump administra­tion — though apparently neither our military nor intelligen­ce community detected them at the time. “It’s my responsibi­lity to detect threats to North America,” Gen. Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, said this week. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. That’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.” How on earth did we miss a slow-moving, 200-foot-tall balloon — the size of a 20-story building?

This time we did detect the Chinese craft before it entered U.S. airspace — yet did not stop it. Instead of shooting down the ship before it entered our territory, Biden let it hover over our country for a week, before finally shooting it down over the Atlantic. One wonders whether he would have done even that if someone in Montana had not looked up at the sky and said: What the hell is that?

“This should be a wake-up call for us,” Gallagher told me. “I mean, this is a bold move, to do this, to enter into our sovereign airspace and with a spy balloon,” he continued. “They just calculated that they could get away with it. What else do they think they can get away with?” He added: “We do look weak. I think it undermines our deterrent posture, and it raises a lot of questions about our ability to deter a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.”

Biden did not address any of those concerns Tuesday night. He didn’t even try. But at least he’s laser-focused on protecting us from resort fees.

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